As a former radio show host and conversation-based podcaster, I have had some experience in figuring out how to navigate discussions with strangers. I’ve talked to comedians about their religious experiences and to writers about their favorite bands. I’ve heard stories about mental hospital stays and divorces and discussed parenting and diet regimens with celebrities. But when people ask me to distill the hundreds of candid conversations I’ve pursued down to a single take-away, I never hesitate.
It all comes down to this for me: Keep asking questions.
I know it sounds simple. It almost sounds like a trope. But my proudest moments in conversation are the times that I didn’t chicken out and decided to ask one more question.
I was reminded of this concept when on a business call with a co-worker. She noticed a rock in a small glass case on the desk of the man we were meeting.
“Sorry. I have to ask,” she said bluntly. “What is the story with that rock on your desk?”
I was a little embarrassed for the poor guy. It looked like a trinket he might have gotten at a museum or his kid might have created in science class. I would have made some assumptions and just pushed on to the business purpose of this meeting. But when she asked about the rock, his face lit up and he launched into a story.
“A friend of mine was in Germany,” he started. “She was at an outdoor café and heard some commotion and saw people running towards her table from far down the street. She could tell something big was happening…”
It turns out that “something big” was the destruction of the Berlin Wall. She walked that direction and watched this monumental event happen in real time. And when she left, she grabbed a few pieces of the debris as souvenirs and gave one to this guy. It was in a glass case because it’s since been discovered to contain asbestos.
And I was not going to ask about the rock.
You HAVE to keep asking questions.
This simple principle also applies to brands. When approaching marketing with storytelling, it is essential to find the stories that really resonate with an audience – and those stories aren’t always near the surface of an organization.
Most teams are taught to stick to the taglines. There is a mission statement and an origin story. You put those in print and shove them into the onboarding manual and your job is done. But that doesn’t work so well anymore. Those stories are often overly formatted or just too often told.
Experts tout that a perception of authenticity is becoming among the most important attributes a brand can have. While the rags-to-riches rise of the CEO sounds good at first, it rots on the shelf. People fall in love with people and while we all want to see the underdog get his day, no one wants to see him become complacent and fat. We need to know what happened next. What did he do with his millions? How is he changing the world in a good way with his newfound abundance?
Good storytelling through content is good brand maintenance.
Here are some questions to ask when trying to find the next story to tell about your brand:
- What has our brand done to make life better for a specific person in the last thirty days?
- Who are the “heroes” around the home office and what makes them admirable?
- What do key members of the community think about our brand?
- Who are our biggest fans (and why)?
Once you get those out of the way, don’t be afraid to take the scalpel a layer deeper. Remember: authenticity counts. Showing off old warts can pay dividends in trust. Ask harder questions:
- What did we used to do poorly that we have learned to do better?
- What do we still need to improve (and what is holding us back)?
- What do we consider our biggest failure as a company?
- What regrets do we live with as a brand and as employees?
The answers to questions like these likely won’t lead to ready-to-send press releases, but deep-diving past the mission statement and Christmas party pictures can help you find inspiration and worthy tales to tell in unlikely places.
Finally, don’t hesitate to push on those around the nucleus of the organization to help find additional tales that resonate. I used to work with a guy named Mike who had been alongside the founders of the organization for decades. An early morning coffee break with Mike inevitably led to tall tales of almost buying Apple stock with our owner or weird company potlucks of yesteryear. These stories over time helped create for me a familiarity and fondness for the people inside the organization and there is no reason this same effect can’t be achieved through careful content curation.
Find the stories and tell them.
To achieve remarkable content marketing results, it helps to have a plan, a map, and a landscape. But often what you need most is curiosity enough to keep asking questions.